Original Title: Overzealous drug war claims another casualty
The question isn't whether a Pembroke Pines police officer was justified in fatally shooting Vincent Hodgkiss in his home early Thursday morning, or whether illegal drug activity was taking place there.
The real question is this: Was a paramilitary-style dawn raid the best way to go about serving a drug-related search warrant?
Deputy Police Chief David Golt defended the use of the Special Response Team, Pembroke Pines' version of SWAT, to carry out the 6:30 a.m. raid that left Hodgkiss, 46, dead.
"We use SRT to serve all narcotics warrants," Golt said Friday. "You never know what you're going to encounter."
In this case, a middle-aged man with a concealed weapons permit and no record of violent crime encountered his demise in his home of 14 years.
Jack Cole, a former New Jersey narcotics detective who now heads a drug-law reform group, questions the use of SWAT raids for drug searches. Too often they lead to tragic consequences for police, bystanders and suspects, he says. Especially in the dazed and darkened confusion of dawn.
"I've never thought this was smart policing," said Cole, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "It's better to use stealth and imagination, wait until you get people out of the house."
We've seen this tragic outcome before. In August 2005, Sunrise police used a SWAT team for a lethal pre-dawn raid on a suspected drug dealer. Anthony Diotaiuto, 23, was shot 10 times. Police found a little more than an ounce of pot in the home.
"That's just insanity," Cole said.
In that case, two officers were cleared of criminal wrongdoing, but the family's civil case is ongoing.
Attorney William Scherer III said Sunrise police detonated a flash-bang grenade after forcing their way into Diotaiuto's house. "You can imagine what that does to you if you've been awakened by someone breaking into your house," Scherer said. "How can you expect someone to respond intelligently?"
Said Cole: "Put yourself in the occupant's position. You're asleep and you're woken up by a huge crash at the door. I know if it was my house and I had a gun, I'd probably go for it, too."
At this point, Pembroke Pines police haven't revealed many details about the raid on Hodgkiss' home. Police aren't saying if any illegal drugs were found, apart from a small amount of marijuana that led to the arrest of Lisa Ann Jones, 19, the girlfriend of Hodgkiss' son Chris, 22.
Police haven't said if Vincent Hodgkiss was armed when he was shot.
And Golt would not say how many officers entered the home, if they forcibly entered or if they used a flash-bang grenade.
"We don't discuss procedures," Golt said. "But we implement all acceptable methods used as SWAT tactics."
Golt said Pembroke Pines uses the Special Response Team to carry out about 25 drug warrants a year, and nearly all go off without incident. He said there hasn't been a fatal shooting by Pembroke Pines police in at least 25 years.
He also pointed to escalating violence against police and the fatal shooting of Broward Sheriff's Deputy Todd Fatta in a 2004 child-porn raid that didn't use SWAT as reasons for using the SRT unit.
According to statistics kept by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, police drug raids have resulted in 42 deaths of innocents, 24 deaths and injuries of police officers, and 22 deaths of nonviolent drug suspects since 1985.
"Even if no one got hurt and police always got the right house, I'm just not comfortable using these paramilitary tactics for nonviolent drug offenders," said Radley Balko, who wrote "Overkill: The rise of paramilitary police raids in America" for the Cato Institute. "If we're going to have a drug war, there are better ways of doing this."
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